Chito Beach Resort and the Olympic Peninsula’s SR 112
Drive too fast and you’ll miss it. Refuse to stop, get out and get soaked in the spray of salt water mist swept off the sea in a gust of the storm, and you can be sure the ancient waves will go on tumbling without you, the coastal rhythm will still ebb and flow by the moon’s tug and the shape of the earth’s edge will continue to be sculpted by the tongues of time.
So you must stop and get out of the car; the city; the drone.
And do so in the fall.
The northwestern tip of Washington’s Olympic peninsula is dominated by a special primitive magic: old growth, dripping rain forests, gray soft sand beaches and brume-shrouded lakes. The area is no secret the world-round. But it’s often a summer crowd that flocks to its national and state parks, which preserve much of this natural beauty.
It’s in late October that Billy and I make our annual trip out here, for one purpose: to relax. The bikes are left at home. No intense plans to hike this or schralp that are incorporated. We hang out in quiet solitude, muse about life and just generally watch the natural show before us. Last year it was eternal sunsets. This year: savage storms.
Drive too fast up State Route 112, a national scenic byway that ribbons the northern coast of the peninsula and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and you’ll miss it. Chito Beach Resort, a village of six petite rustic cabins, is nestled among the rocks on a tiny jetty not 10 feet from the waves at high tide. The cabins are private; close to one another in distance, but eons from everything outside your own peaceful peripheral, with a personal window—and porch–situated to sit and watch the world evolve, or slip back in time.
Storms were forecast all weekend, but on our first morning the sunrise offered a glimpse at serenity, bit of nature’s innocence. The pink sky was spilled all over the shore in the fingers of the tide, still low, and accented the tips of the waves. We stuck our heads out of the cabin to take in deeply the first breaths of the cold morning. The long golden lines of Band of Horses lyrics hung about the kitchen as we made coffee and omelets.
As the day wore on and the tide came in, so too did the impassioned storms. The transformation of our little cove was personifying. The sky turned that foreboding black. Within minutes an angry ocean swelled then raged beneath the monsoon, lashing out at the shore with white frothing claws. The sky answered with a burst of hail, as the cove bloated with heavy badgering waves, at times plenty large enough to surf. It was a battle to be left between the sea and the sky.
So we stayed on our porch. Sipped and snuggled beneath blankets. Broken Social Scene cooed faintly from the distant inside.
By evening, that storm had had its say and carried on, dragging its sheets over the shore and into the interior of the peninsula for another opponent, leaving our little cove free to recoup. It settled once again into placidity and Billy and I, with the gulls, ventured out from beneath our shelter to comb the unveiled shore.
Dusk was honored with red wine. Beyond our window, the drowsy tide lapped on a slowly rolling reel. Billy cooked a gourmet meal, as he does with the ease of a seasoned chef all the while keeping pace with the conversation. The savory smell mingled with Minus the Bear tunes wafting through the cabin.
We spent one whole day doing just this. Our hearts seem chummier for it, and much refreshed. But our legs and souls get antsy just sitting around, so we have to bookend these trips with missionable activity. The drives to and from always present that opportunity.
Twisting and winding—undulating, on this road—with the byway of SR 112, dodging high-speed logging trucks, we traced the jagged coastline with our steering wheel. Numerous state beaches along the way offer observatories of the natural habitat below. We popped out at Salt Creek, a campground just up from these rock beds. The geological relics look as though they’re still oozing into the sea. At high tide, their orifices capture the makings for vibrant tide pools. At any of these turn outs you can gaze out into the vast seascape and watch storms creep in to engulf it. Salt Creek still has bunkers notched into the hillside, evidence of the World War II military fortress that was Camp Hayden.
Just around the cape of Tongue Point on Salt Creek, is Crescent Beach where you can take in the majesty of this tiny island and little inlet. When we showed up the sun was casting a resplendent shield on everything. And with the dark curtain of a storm draped the distance, there was a feeling a good and evil lurking. As if you’d strolled right into nature reciting a fairytale.
And then that storm made its way over to us, forcing us under a tree canopy to plop down on a log, watch and just… listen. The raindrops pitter-pattered. Then grew heavier, soon pummeling the leaves and turning the water from glass to texture.
Many campgrounds dot the coastline. We jotted down names like Whiskey Creek, Lyre and Harrison Beach campgrounds, the two latter of which are tucked away in the woods on either side of a river, encased by electrifying fall leaves.
But our destination was Chito Beach Resort, past all this. Past the tiny village of Clallam Bay on another cove, through the halycon hymns of an Empire of the Sun album, and on to the western fringe of the historic town of Sekiu. You pass by the exit that leads to this small fishing village just off the hwy, but it’s worth taking that exit, too. The name Sekiu means “quiet waters”— not so accurate during the storms we witnessed, but the quiet is there, settled in like the locals. There’s a pub and a boat launch, a dive shop and wildlife tour companies.
And then at the western border of this all rests Chito Beach, shrouded from the highway by ferns and trees. It has a neighboring gas station and convenience store–“the last place to get beer and wine in the United States,” before a 20-minute drive leads you onto the Makah Reservation.
On Monday morning, we crawled out from under the warm covers in the log cabin bedroom—just big enough for the bed—made coffee, then drove out to the reservation. At its entrance sits a profound museum with a haunting display of the history of a people so elegant and enduring, now forced to balance what’s left of their culture upon a patch of earth designated by the U.S. government. In 1970, tidal erosion exposed 500-year-old homes where the village once stood, and a treasure trove of thousands of artifacts is now exhibited at the museum. We walked its dark corridors, gazing into the yellow-lit glass cases at tools made out of whale bone and clothing woven from cedar bark. You wonder how the Makah lived in this wet icy-cold climate during the winter. “Hearty souls” seems a frail explanation.
From there, Cape Flattery is a 30-minute drive. We passed through town, stopping for a permit, then headed deep into coastal forests until we reached the trail head. The path out to Washington’s western most tip is a cedar-planked traverse above mud and at the feet of towering fir and cedar trees, whose roots spill out from the under the earth and gnarl the trail.
Lookouts along the way are reveal heart-clenching views. But it’s the end of the path–and the earth’s end–where the jaw drops, the eyes are become true windows to the wild and the soul sinks deep into nature’s abyss.
The cape is a geological wonder shaped by the wind and the sea. Sea caves swallow mouth fulls of saltwater, as violent waves slam themselves against the cliff, thrusting their spray up the sides. In the tempest, not too far out in the ocean the waves soared 40, 50 feet, before barreling over themselves. We could only stand on the platform for a few minutes before the howling wind drove us back off the cusp of the raging scene. But from the tip, you can see Tatoosh Island, where a lighthouse guards the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The island once served as a whaling camp for the Makah, and then serviced the Coast Guard. Today, access to the uninhabited island requires the permission of the Makah.
Before leaving the reservation, we stopped at the Take-it-Home-Fish Co. for smoked salmon. We grabbed crackers and cream cheese and pulled off the side of 112 to this dashboard view. While the rain beat against the car’s roof and the waves coaxed fallen trees out into the insatiable sea, we munched on smoked salmon so delicately potent that the technique was surely perfected 500 years ago.
By mid-afternoon Monday we were back zipping along the hwy, pointed south, toward the ferry terminals. We took SR 113 instead, to take in different sights. It scoots along through the interior of the peninsula and a follows the edge of Crescent Lake. The lake sat beneath a thick layer of fog, a muffled blue-gray void in the orange-red-deep-green scenery.
Fall had surely taken over. But the storms we witnessed were winter’s harbinger. We found respite on the strip of the northern peninsula. Winter will likely be a different scene, a different experience.